--Z.C.

Best Producer
Gone are the days when a producer was placed on some lofty pedestal. Nowadays, recording equipment is so cheap that just about anybody can be a producer, and they can do it almost anywhere. What was once a field of bitter and stubborn men who imposed their own vision on the band (Phil Spector) has been replaced by a group of musicians who record bands in their free time, usually in an empty room of their house.

Matt Pence and Sam McCall both fit this bill. Between the two of them--and including Dave Willingham--they have recorded (at home) almost every band in Denton, including some of the best albums to come out in the past few years, such as Slobberbone's Crow Pot Pie and Centro-matic's Redo the Stacks. Chad Lovell is also a musician, but his studio isn't exactly a home-recording facility like Pence's. He and his band, Course of Empire, built the studio using advance money from their former label, Zoo. Lovell undoubtedly has one of the best ears in town, as evinced by his win in this category last year and his permanent spot near the top of many bands' producer-to-get lists. David Castell is kind of a throwback to the old school of producers, but that only means he doesn't work at home. His skill can be heard on Buck Jones' Shimmer, where he gave the band the added edge they lacked on their previous record, Shoegazer.

If we had to pick a winner, Pence would get the nod. His work with two-thirds of Funland, Peter Schmidt and Will Johnson, shows just how versatile Pence can be. Centro-matic's album was rough in all the right places, and smooth where Pence could get away with it. It sounds like a home-recording because Johnson wanted it that way. Schmidt's unreleased album is the exact opposite. It has all sorts of little details that usually get excised outside of a normal studio. Unfortunately, Pence has packed up his gear and moved to St. Louis, breaking the hearts of a number of up-and-coming (and poor) Denton bands.

--Z.C.

Best Live Music Venue
Nice that Dallas' music scene has evolved to the point that every nominee in this category really is a great place to see and hear bands play. The baby of group, The Curtain Club, is only a few months old, though it opened with an air of entitlement and the bravado of a major contender, thanks to the industry prowess of its owners. Its specialty: established local bands, grouped together on sure-fire power bills that bring the kids out in swarms. Course of Empire plays with Captain Audio. Centro-matic plays with the Calways. Hagfish plays with Bowling for Soup. It's one-stop shopping for a cross-section of Who's-Cool-Now? Small enough to feel intimate but big enough to breathe, the Curtain Club may be the first all-local venue that comes off like a polished pro. And it doesn't hurt that its sound system and its golden-earred soundman were all lifted straight from...Trees.

For seven years straight, Trees was the only mid-sized rock venue that always did it right. To this day, local bands consider themselves "arrived" if they land a headliner slot there, and their fans swoon at the big, clean, well-cooled room that still mostly manages to keep the ogling frat boys and clueless tourists at bay. Even with the competition from the newfangled Curtain Club, Trees pulls a trump card by booking strong indie-rock touring acts that blow through town: Sebadoh, Son Volt, Stereolab, Flaming Lips, Dinosaur Jr. The club's friendly bartenders, viewing mezzanines, and pool tables upstairs don't hurt either. Let's just see if it can get its once-perfect sound back in the pink.

A few doors down, the soon-to-shut-its-doors The Dark Room sits like an oasis of civilized quietude in the overcrowded chaos of Deep Ellum. There, you can sit in a booth, sip a Cosmopolitan, and hear the Meredith Miller Band or the Enablers or Broose Dickinson play with accomplished low-key flair, or catch Slobberbone or American Fuse play full-on rock sets with turned-down attitude. Small, dark (you may have guessed), and conversation-friendly, the Dark Room is a favorite destination of knowing music fans who don't want their ears blown off every night. It's almost tragic that it will soon enough get absorbed by the Green Room:Fraternity Row doesn't need another restaurant-bar, does it?

A half mile down Elm, you'll find the country cousin of the rock contingent, and a much older, nobler cousin it is. Sons of Hermann Hall, a lodge-ballroom established in the earliest part of the century for a German fraternal order, has in the past few years re-crowned itself as a great stage for local and national country, swing, and alt-country acts. Junior Brown, Wilco, Robert Earl Keen, and the Old 97's sound great every time, and the atmospheric details boost the hall's charm about 34 notches: hardwood floors, curving double staircase, heavy velvet curtains, long tables for ample seating, and a downstairs stretch of well-lighted bar offering a welcome respite from the live show. The forced departure of Mike Snyder for the Gypsy Tea Room has caused a lot of the Sons' former tenants to follow suit--Son Volt played the Tea Room on its recent swing through town--which has forced the Sons to book more up-and-comers than established acts.

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